Phantom of the Opera

Last year’s musical production, the twentieth in succession, was a wonderful celebration featuring show songs from the previous two decades’ worth of stage musicals. How could we follow that to commemorate our twenty-first anniversary?

Discussions started during the summer term of 2017. We quickly dismissed all the easier, more obvious options. In order to offer our students the best showcase for their very considerable talents, our choice for 2018 would need to be musically challenging and visually stunning with high dramatic impact. The Phantom of the Opera, which we had considered briefly a number of times over previous years, was gradually rising to the top of the “could we possibly…? ” list.

The final decision to stage Phantom was certainly not an easy one. This was a show in its 32nd year in the West End, with the longest ever run on Broadway, seen by millions the world over and claimed passionately by so many as their all-time favourite. But we were resolved – now was the time! And once we had put down the very sizeable deposit for the licence, there was no turning back…

Every production has its challenges whether it be the stage set and lighting design or the sound set-up and quality, the complexity of the songs and harmonies or the musical orchestration, the characterisation, the costumes or the choreography. Well, as we soon discovered, The Phantom of the Opera would certainly equal or, more likely, exceed all previous productions in every one of those areas of endeavour!

At a very early meeting of the production team, Patch Tate presented us with his projections of how the stage set could look. We were all amazed and highly impressed: Patch was offering to build us a nineteenth century theatre stage, complete with proscenium arch, two levels and Box Number 5. Not only that – he would design and construct the renowned chandelier! Patch assured us, too, that the lighting, an integral element of the dramatic narrative, would be spectacular. He would also use his extensive network of contacts to ensure that the sound quality would do justice to the performances of our gifted young singers and expert musicians.

With Patch and his crew taking care of all the design, construction and technical elements, Elaine Harburn (thank goodness) working on the extensive costume design and assembly, and Jo Christopher and Jenn Wheatley creating and coordinating a very peculiar collection of props, we could concentrate on the singing, choreography and staging. Casting the show was a real pleasure – those who auditioned were so eager and excited to  be taking part. We had to overcome the usual shortage of male volunteers but were delighted that three very busy members of staff agreed to take on crucial comic roles, involving some very complex singing numbers. We were very fortunate, too, that Geena Hird offered to take care of the choreography, particularly as she was able to work with many of her own gifted ballet students who were already cast members.

The rehearsal schedule started in November and was, as always, a punishing one, both for staff and students, all of whom had so many other calls on their time. Lunch time singing slots this year, with split breaks, were even more tricky to arrange. But our dedicated cast members attended regularly and, under the guidance and untiring tutelage of Lisa Sargent, musical director, assisted by Tim Amos (a.k.a Monsieur Firmin), they gradually mastered the Phantom’s highly demanding solos and fiendishly complex harmonies.

All day rehearsals started in January, every Sunday up until show week. We rehearsed after school three or four evenings a week. Everyone was feeling the strain – and right up to the last weekend, we weren’t sure how it would all come together. Our young cast members were being asked to convey a convoluted story line involving intense characterisation and a vast range of conflicting emotions: joy, terror, obsession, love, jealousy, grief, hateful vengeance and bleak despair. All of these, peppered with some comic incredulity, were to be delivered whilst singing and, at times, dancing as well!

This year, it was not until the first night’s performance, that we finally realised we could do this. Without exaggeration, it was astounding. Those of us lucky enough to watch from the wings or in the audience were astonished at the transformation that had taken place since the run through earlier that day. That night and every one following, accompanied by highly accomplished musicians under the direction of Lisa Sargent, all of our cast members exceeded our already high expectations. The final performance was extra special, signed by Nicki Sanders and Kirsty Dorkenoo on what was Nicki’s birthday. Our soloists gave truly stunning performances, their confidence enhanced by the expert presence of our last-minute replacement. I don’t think that anyone fully anticipated the tide of emotion p rovoked by the beauty and passion of the duets between Christine and Phantom. I certainly shall never forget them.

So, singing, stage set, lighting, sound, costumes, props and choreography, in fact, all the challenges listed above were successfully met! Judging by the ovations, the animated buzz in the auditorium after each show and the acclamations received since, our audiences were equally enthusiastic and appreciative.

Many sincere and grateful thanks to all involved.

Maggie Keber